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How the 101-year-old Valero Texas Open overcame uncertainty and found its niche ahead of Masters


At the start of the roaring 1920s, Jack O’Brien, a sports editor for the San Antonio Evening News, had an idea.

That idea has overcome various obstacles and morphed into what we now know as the Valero Texas Open — the PGA Tour’s third-oldest tournament, the world’s sixth-oldest golf tournament and the longest event contested in the same city.

O’Brien wanted to bring tourists from the Northeast and Midwest to San Antonio during the winter and thought a golf tournament would be a perfect attraction, so he convinced the San Antonio Junior Chamber of Commerce and other benefactors to cough up $5,000 for the tournament — what would be more than $75,000 today.

Full-field tee times from the Valero Texas Open

On Feb. 3, 1922, 60 of the world’s top players came to the A.W. Tillinghast-designed Brackenridge Park Golf Course for the inaugural Texas Open. Bob MacDonald won, taking home $1,633 from the $5,000 purse, the largest ever in golf at the time.

The following year, future Hall of Famer Walter Hagen rallied from six shots down in the final round to emerge victorious in a playoff against Bill Mehlhorn — giving the event profound recognition.

In the coming years, the event pioneered what is now an annual custom on Tour — playing in warm weather areas during the winter.

“What (O’Brien) was trying to do was spread tourism,” native Texan and World Golf Hall of Famer Ben Crenshaw said in 2022. “He did a beautiful job with that. I like to say the Texas Open is the first forerunner for the whole PGA Tour itself. It was such a success. There was so much excitement about it. And I think it introduced a way of having the professional tour travel throughout the country and have a schedule.”

The Great Depression and WWII forced the tournament into hiatuses in 1933, ‘35-’38 and ‘43. However, the event always returned en route to establishing a 101-year history with top-flight champions such as Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino, to name a few.

Arguably the event’s most famous edition came in 1940, when Nelson and a young Hogan, both Fort Worth natives, had an epic duel. Nelson birdied the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Hogan, which Nelson would win with thousands watching. Hogan finished runner-up for three-straight years before winning in ’46.

Texas Open 1994

Palmer three-peated at the Texas Open from 1960-'62 at two different venues — Ft. Sam Houston and Oak Hills Country Club. The tournament has been held on eight courses, with TPC San Antonio being its home since 2010.

In ‘73 at Woodlake Golf Club, Crenshaw, just months removed from winning his third-straight NCAA title as a Texas Longhorn, won the San Antonio Texas Open in his Tour debut.

Seven years later, Trevino, at age 40, was already a five-time major champion and one of Texas’ greatest players. He had never won his home state’s open — until 1980. Tied with Terry Diehl down the stretch, Trevino dropped a 25-foot putt on the 72nd hole to win by a stroke, sending “Lee’s Fleas,” (his fan’s moniker) into a frenzy.

“I looked up and saw what looked like apple trees,” Trevino told the San Antonio Express-News in 2021. “The people were hanging off the limbs. I wanted to win in San Antonio so bad. It was one of the greatest putts I ever made.”

In the two decades that followed, the tournament would boast champions such as Corey Pavin, Mark O’Meara, Nick Price and Hal Sutton. But in ‘93, H.E.B dropped its title sponsorship after four years, and in ’94, the event was contested one last time at Oak Hill, before moving to La Cantera Golf Club until 2009.

Texas Open 1990

In ’98, Westin Hotels & Resorts signed a three-year contract to become the event’s title sponsor, replacing La Cantera. However, Westin did not renew after 2000, putting the Texas Open’s future in jeopardy.

The event needed a $1.3 million handout from the Tour to be played without a sponsor in 2001, but then it found its savior.

Valero Energy Corporation CEO William Greehey swooped in and paid $15.3 million for Valero to attach its name to the tournament for five years. Valero has been the title sponsor ever since.

Even though Greehey helped preserve the tournament, its spot on the Tour schedule was still not ideal.

In the 1990s and ‘00s, the event was often played the same week as the Ryder or Presidents Cup in September or October. Former tournament director Tony Piazzi told Sports Illustrated in ’98 that the Texas Open would “certainly rather not be competing against” the biennial festivities.

After the inception of the FedExCup in 2007, the Texas Open became a fall series event, which wasn’t part of the Tour’s regular season, but rather intended for the rank-and-file players to obtain their cards for the next season. But when the Atlanta Classic dissolved after ’08, the Valero Texas Open took its spot on the Tour’s spring schedule.

“The fall, there was a period there where this tournament was kind of questionable,” Zach Johnson said in ’09 at TPC San Antonio, “and certainly Valero stepped in, San Antonio stepped in … being part of the FedEx schedule adds an element to it, too, so I think it’s just going to increasingly get better year after year.”

In the 2010s, the event flip-flopped on the calendar from a few weeks before or after the Masters. As a result, issues with the strength of field persisted, as many players took time off during that portion of the schedule to either prepare for or rest after the first major of the year.

But after Valero re-upped its title sponsorship with a 10-year deal in 2017, the Tour found the event a niche on the schedule — the week before the Masters, offering the last remaining spot in the major’s field. If a player isn’t already exempt, a win at TPC San Antonio will send them to Augusta. Corey Conners in 2019 and J.J. Spaun in ‘22 did just that. A few big names, including Rickie Fowler, are hoping the same will happen to them in ‘23.

The Valero Texas Open was not played in 2020 because of COVID, but like many times before, the event overcame uncertain times and bounced back bigger and better than ever in ‘21, raising a record $16 million for charity.

That year, the event added another indelible moment to its illustrious history. Jordan Spieth ended a 1,351-day winless drought and added his name to a prestigious list of Texans to win their home state’s open.

“The longevity of it and the history of this tournament,” Spieth said in 2022, the tournament’s 100th anniversary, “you look in the clubhouse here and you look at the Texas greats, some Hall of Famers from Nelson to Hogan to Trevino … it’s got tremendous history. And for a tournament to be around that long on the PGA Tour, there’s only a very small handful of events like that.”

To think, it all started with O’Brien’s idea.